MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - Wearing an elegant trouser-suit and an air of defiance, the suspected surviving member of a German neo-Nazi cell strode into a Munich court on Monday to stand trial for a series of racist murders that scandalised Germany and led to intense soul-searching about the lack of vigilance towards the far right.
Outside the high-security court room, where dozens had queued from before dawn to secure one of the few public places, hundreds of police stood guard, clashing briefly with protesters who said they had a right to follow one of Germany’s most hotly-anticipated court cases.
The trial of 38-year-old Beate Zschaepe was adjourned until May 14th, after defence lawyers delivered motions objecting to the court’s chief judge, accusing him of bias. The court will now consider those motions.
The chance discovery of the gang, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), which had gone undetected for more than a decade, forced Germany to acknowledge that it had a more militant and dangerous neo-Nazi fringe than previously thought and wrecked the careers of top domestic intelligence officials.
Zschaepe is charged with complicity in the shooting of eight Turks, a Greek and a German policewoman in towns across Germany between 2000 and 2007, as well as two bombings in immigrant areas of Cologne and 15 bank robberies.
Her two presumed male accomplices both committed suicide in 2011. She faces life imprisonment.
Zschaepe appeared in court with her long, glossy hair worn loose and with large hoop earrings, in sharp contrast to the surly mug shots that have been splashed over German media. She chatted frequently with her defence lawyers, sharing gum, tossing her head and occasionally smiling.
“She seemed to enjoy the attention,” said a lawyer representing the families of the victims.
Four other male defendants charged with assisting the NSU were more casually dressed, one entering in sunglasses.
Defence lawyers immediately challenged the presiding judge’s impartiality for ordering them but not some other participants to be searched thoroughly before entering the Munich court.
“This implies the defence lawyers are so stupid they might bring forbidden objects into the court,” said attorney Wolfgang Stahl, adding that Judge Manfred Goetzl seemed to suspect the defence team might pose a security threat.
The case has shaken a country that believed it had learned the lessons of the past, and has reopened a debate about whether Germany must do more to tackle racism and the far right.
“With its historical, social and political dimensions, the NSU trial is one of the most significant in post-war German history,” lawyers for the family of the first victim, flower seller Enver Simsek, said in a statement.
Outside the courthouse German-Turkish community groups and anti-racism demonstrators held up banners including one that read: “Hitler-child Zschaepe, you will pay for your crimes”.
Members of the public gasped when the brother of one of the defendants, himself described in an intelligence report as a former neo-nazi youth leader, entered the gallery in the afternoon.
The existence of the gang came to light in November 2011 when the two men believed to have founded the NSU with Zschaepe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, committed suicide after a botched bank robbery and set their caravan ablaze.
In the charred vehicle, police found the gun used in all 10 murders and a grotesque DVD claiming responsibility for them, in which the bodies of the victims were pictured with a cartoon Pink Panther totting up the number of dead.
After the suicides, Zschaepe is believed to have set fire to a flat she shared with the men in Zwickau, in east Germany. Four days later, she turned herself in to police in her hometown of Jena, saying: “I‘m the one you’re looking for.”
For the victims’ families, the trial’s opening was difficult encounter with a woman whose resolute silence since her arrest has left people struggling to make sense of her motives. A day of legal procedural wrangling was also a disappointment for families who have waited for years to find out the truth.
Hearings are scheduled into early 2014, with the trio’s relatives due to testify.
As teenagers in Jena, the trio were known to authorities to be involved in racist hate crimes and bomb making, but they escaped arrest and assumed new identities.
Prosecutors say they chose shopkeepers and small business owners as easy targets to try to hound immigrants out of Germany. Some of the victims’ relatives came under suspicion because police simply did not consider a far-right motive.
The German parliament is conducting an inquiry into how the security services failed for so long to link the murders or share information, despite having informers close to the group.
The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency resigned last year after it emerged that files documenting the use of informers in the far right had been destroyed after the discovery of the NSU.
Politicians have accused the intelligence agencies of being “blind in the right eye” and of focusing so much on Islamist groups that they overlooked the threat from the far right.
The trial had been postponed by two weeks after an uproar over the court’s failure to guarantee Turkish media a seat.
Additional reporting by Joern Poltz and Reuters television in Munich; Writing by Alexandra Hudson and Stephen Brown in Berlin; Editing by Peter Graff